Studying Religion: Preparing Students to More Fully Engage the World

Why study religion?

Debates over Park 51, lawsuits against Scientology in France, restrictions on the building of minarets in Switzerland, the rise of the Christian Right, the tragedy at Jonestown. These events and countless others demonstrate the pivotal role the religion plays in our world. While many have predicted the “death of God” or the decline of religious institutions, this has not happened.  In fact, as scholar Gary Kessler writes, religion is “a force that influences, for good or for ill, the lives of practically everyone who is alive.”  People live and die in the name of religion.  And, increasingly, religion is becoming a central part of election campaigns, educational curricula, personal decisions, and popular culture products.  Given the power of religion in our world, it is imperative that we, as citizens, study it.  The academic study of religion provides students with essential skills (critical thinking, analytical writing, active listening, cross cultural communication, critical empathy, public speaking, scholarly research, etc.) and prepares them to engage the diversity and complexity of our global environment in meaningful ways.

Studying Religion is…

GLOBAL:  Studying religion is essential to understanding world cultures—their core values, beliefs, and practices.

MEANINGFUL:  Studying religion is vital to learning how people make sense of their lives and the world.

DIVERSE:  Studying religion is crucial to understanding our increasingly diverse world and our courses are some of the most culturally diverse on campus.

PRACTICAL:  Studying religion teaches important professional skills (critical thinking, writing, research, etc.) and the department connects academia to the real world through programs like Religion and Public Engagement and Religion, Law and Ethics.

INTERDISCIPLINARY:  Religion penetrates virtually every aspect of human culture. This is why studying religion intersects with and enhances the understanding of other disciplines and fits perfectly with other majors and minors.

What is the academic study of religion?

The study of religion is a way of organizing academic inquiry into how human beings and human cultures express and experience their religious needs, beliefs and values. It involves the study of both specific religious traditions and the general nature of religion as a phenomenon of human life. Using cross-cultural and interdisciplinary approaches, religious studies investigates and interprets systems of religious belief, the history of religious traditions, the function of religion in society, and forms of religious expression such as ritual, symbols, sacred narrative, scripture, practices, theological and philosophical reflection. Students of religion, whether adherents of a religion or of no religion, gain tools to understand, compare and engage the phenomenon of religion and its role in human life and culture.

What can I learn in religion courses?

Studying provides a place for students to explore how humans have struggled to make sense of themselves and their world. To study religion is to study responses, both behavioral and intellectual, to some of the great riddles and questions that face human beings, including origins, death, suffering, hope, love and the nature of the self and the universe. Religion is not a narrow, isolated segment of individual and social life. Rather, it is a constellation of beliefs, values, practices and behaviors that deeply inform personal and public life. The study of religion requires a variety of disciplinary approaches, bringing together perspectives and approaches from history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, literature, theology and social theory to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the persons and communities that constitute religious traditions.

Courses in the religion department can take you deeper into your own religious heritage and help you to know the religious traditions of others. You will gain a critical appreciation of the complex role that religion plays in the terms of cultural discourse, of social attitudes and behavior and of moral reflection in both Eastern and Western religious traditions and in the experience of individuals and communities.

 The failure of Americans to understand other religions “poses one of the great challenges to our public diplomacy” (Madeleine Albright, The Mighty and the Almighty, Easton Press, 2003).

What do students say about the studying religion and the Religion Department?

“I came into the department not looking forward to my first religion class—I thought I pretty much knew what the department was, coming in from a Catholic high school.  However, I’ve learned SO much during my time as a religion major—about different traditions, religious texts, and the human religious experience in general.  I’ve loved it, and I will continue my religious studies.”

“Small classes, a lot of class discussion, great professors who are willing to let students follow their interests and are open to talking over ideas outside of class.”

“I’m not a very religious person myself, so the field fascinated me.  What’s more, I’ve found every course I’ve taken very unique and extraordinarily interesting.  I love that the base of many of the classes is class discussion and exploration.  The professors all push the students to further their ideas through intellectual discussion.  I absolutely love it!”

“The empathetic and warm atmosphere created within the department from professors and staff alike is one that motivates students to not only achieve but also overachieve and explore various venues.  It has proved, to me, to be one of the most flexible yet innovative departments on campus as it allows for the creation of new classes that cater to the students and moreover professors interests.”

Who can I talk with about studying religion? How do I find out more?

The Religion Department is warm and welcoming community of scholars.  Professors and students are happy to talk with you about the opportunities available.  To make an appointment to talk with someone about your interest in studying religion, please email Ms. Sheila Lockhart.

For additional information on the benefits of studying religion, see Why Major/Minor in Religion and browse this site sponsored by the American Academy of Religion: Why Study Religion?